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Parents, Sometimes You're The Problem When It Comes To Tech Use

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Anya Kamenetz is an NPR education correspondent, a host of Life Kit and author of The Art Of Screen Time. This story draws from the book and recent reporting for Life Kit's guide, Parenting: Screen Time And Your Family.

Elise Potts picked up her 17-month-old daughter, Eliza, from daycare recently. When they got home they were greeted by a strange scene.

"My husband ... he's waving his arms around like a crazy man." Potts says. "He has these things in his hands, he has a black box on his face ... and [Eliza] looks and she points, all confused, and she says, 'Daddy?' "

Daddy, it turned out, had a new Oculus virtual reality headset.

Potts, who lives in Seattle, can't help but wonder what her daughter is making of all the digital technology that surrounds her. Eliza's reaction, she says, is "really cute, but it's also terrifying, because I think of it from her perspective. What does that mean to her?"

It's a good question. The mobile tech revolution is barely a decade old, and it brings special challenges to parents and caregivers, says pediatrician Jenny Radesky, who sees patients at the University of Michigan and is one of the top researchers in the field of parents, children and new media.

"The telephone took decades to reach 50 million global users, and we had Pokémon Go do that within, like, two and a half weeks," Radesky says. "So we all feel like we've been blown over by a tidal wave of all this new stuff."

Most of us feel like we're failing, at least at times, to manage the competing bids for attention that come from work, kids, partners and from our digital devices.

While she doesn't want to come off as "judgy of parents," Radesky and other experts shared four takeaways from the research that can guide parents who want to improve their relationships both with their kids and with technology.

Put your phone away whenever possible when you're with your kids.

Most of us would balk at a family member coming to the dinner table with headphones in, let alone a VR headset. But phones can be just as disruptive to small interactions with children — a phenomenon that some researchers have dubbed "technoference."

For Potts, like many parents, this is a point of contention. "It just really drives me crazy when we're all sitting at the dinner table and [my husband] will get a notification on this phone, and he thinks as long as he holds the phone out of [Eliza's] eyesight that it's OK."

Parents of young children pick up their phones an average of almost 70 times a day, according to a pilot study Radesky recently published. But most of the parents in that study underestimated both how often they picked up their phones and how much time they spent on them.

If glancing at the phone is partly an unconscious habit, as Radesky's study suggests, it could get dangerous. In at least two situations, distracted parenting can be a literal life or death issue — when you are driving and when you are at the pool.

But Radesky has insights about the more subtle, emotional effects of this dynamic — what she calls the "micro-interactions" among parents, kids and screens.

Stop using the phone as a pacifier — for you or your kid.

Potts frets over this situation with her daughter: "We're on a bus, we stayed out a little too long somewhere and we're going home and we're late for nap time and she's going to have a meltdown ... so I pull out the phone."

She wants to know, "Is that a bad thing?"

Radesky says this is incredibly common. Her research has found a correlation between behavior problems and screen use by children and by their parents.

By following families over time, her research has documented what she calls a "bi-directional flow" between parents' screen use, kids' screen use and kids' emotional issues, whether tantrums and acting out, or conversely, becoming more withdrawn.

In other words, the more kids act out, the more stressed parents get. The more stressed parents get, the more they turn to screens as a distraction — for themselves and for their kids.

But, the more parents turn to screens, for themselves or their kids, the more their kids tend to act out.

Radesky adds that when you check out by pulling out your phone in tough moments, you miss important information that can help you be a better parent — and help prevent more tough moments in the future.

"We need to be watching, listening and gathering evidence so we can respond in the right way and help our children develop their own self-regulation skills," she says.

  • Use apps like Moment or Screen Time to track your screen use and block the phone from working at certain times — like during dinner.
  • Keep it out of sight and out of mind: Create a charging station near the front door; leave it in your bag during stressful times like the morning or evening routine.
  • Turn off notifications, so you decide when to check the phone.
  • But life isn't perfect, and sometimes we need to be in two places at once. If you do need to use your phone around your kids:

  • Wait for moments your kids are truly engaged and happy doing something else.
  • Narrate what you are doing, says researcher danah boyd. "Let's check the weather to see what you should wear to school," for instance, or, "Let's ask Mom to pick up milk on her way home from work."
  • If you are in the habit of using a screen to calm your child, instead try a short video or audio track that teaches more mindful calming techniques. Radesky suggests an Elmo "belly breathing" video from Sesame Street. GoNoodle has similar videos targeted to older kids.
  • Before you post a picture or share a cute story about your kids on social media, think twice and get their permission if possible.

    A British study found that parents share about 1,500 imagesof their children by the time they are 5. Stacey Steinberg, a law professor at the University of Florida, believes we should think twice about this behavior, which she calls "sharenting."

    Steinberg specializes in children's rights. She's also a photographer and mother of three, and she started to wonder: "How could we balance our kids' right to privacy with our interest in sharing our stories?"

    Steinberg wants parents "to consider the well-being of their kids not only right now but years into the future if they were to come across the information that had been being shared."

  • Check your privacy settings on all social media sites.
  • Don't share naked or partially clothed pictures or videos online.
  • Give kids veto power over what you share as soon as they are old enough to grasp the concept of "sending Grandma this picture" — 3 or 4.
  • Don't openly share personally identifiable information of your children, like their faces, names, birthdays or exact addresses. That can expose them to data brokers, who build profiles and sell them to marketers; or to hackers, who can create fraudulent accounts and spoil kids' credit before they start kindergarten.
  • For example, after her 8-year-old's gymnastics meet, Steinberg put the laptop on the kitchen counter so they could look through photos together and pick the ones to post. Then they responded together to comments from family and friends.

    This is a best practice for a few reasons, she says. It protects kids' privacy, and it helps them stay connected with friends and family.

    Also, it's a great way of role modeling respectful behavior and good judgment on social media. Kids need these training wheels to understand how to interact online.

    Don't use technology to stalk your children.

    Apps like Find My iPhone give us the ability to see where our children are at all times. You can also check their browser history, look up grades, read their group chats and text them all day long.

    But should you?

    Devorah Heitner, a parent educator and the author of Screenwise, says, "When our kids feel trusted, they often will make better decisions than if they don't feel trusted, because we're not encouraging them to feel like they need to lie or be deceptive."

    Ultimately we are raising adults who will grow up and need to make their own choices. We have to balance protecting them with empowering them.

  • When your children turn 13 and get their own social media accounts, write down their passwords and put them in a sealed envelope. Let them know that if they seem to be in trouble, their grades slip or they skip out on curfew, you will open the envelope and find out what you need to know.
  • Researcher danah boyd, author of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, says your kid may or may not choose to be your "friend' on social media. As they get later on into high school, It's good to recruit trusted people in their network — older siblings, cousins, family friends or aunts — to follow them and also keep an eye out. It really does take a village.
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    Corrected: July 20, 2019 at 10:00 PM MDT
    A previous version of this story misspelled Stacey Steinberg's first name as Stacy.
    Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.